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Matilda’s Dahl-icious designs

Published April 9, 2015

Matilda The Musical, the hit adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel, broke records by collecting seven Olivier Awards in the year of its London theatre debut. It was an incredible achievement, but no-one outside the show was surprised. It was, and is, a production of such universal quality and appeal that negativity just does not have a place within a 60 yard radius of the show’s name.

Among those winners was Rob Howell whose designs, three and a half years after the show’s West End opening at the Cambridge Theatre, now feel part of London’s theatrical landscape, whether it be the set that flows from the stage into the auditorium on a wave of 5,000 alphabet tiles or the unmistakeable form of the domineering headmistress the Trunchbull.

With the show about a young girl in an unloving family who finds solace in stories and takes revenge on those who deserve it now in the running for another Olivier, the 2015 This Morning Audience Award voted for by the theatregoing public, we’ve been given rare access to the show’s original designs.

Howell also let us in on secrets about the designs that didn’t make it to the stage, the inspiration behind costume choices and following Quentin Blake:

I think Quentin Blake’s drawings are sensational, but I wasn’t really interested in, or being asked to, just stand those drawings up. They serve a very different purpose and they serve that purpose brilliantly, but it wouldn’t have served what we needed, which was a world on stage.

I read the book over and over again without looking at the drawings. I tried to see what Roald Dahl had in his head and took my lead from that. Occasionally I’m aware that people think it’s Quentin’s drawings on stage, but that’s because we started from the same source material. That being said, I’m realistic about it. A lot of people understandably adore those drawings and would be somewhat disappointed if it was radically different, so we had a responsibility to understand what had happened before us, but at the same time wanted to do our own thing.

We didn’t want children coming to see our show having to understand the polite etiquette of the proscenium arch, where the show’s on stage and the audience is in the auditorium and there’s the invisible barrier between the two. It didn’t seem fair to ask children to buy into that old fashioned contract. I wanted to do what I could to ignore that and break it down. I knew that whatever the set was going to be it had to creep out into the auditorium so I could blur the lines.

I thought first that the entire world should be school desks; the lids from school desks would lift up and scenic elements would come out. It sounds like an alright idea but I couldn’t get it to be anything other than an adult idea. It was an idea that was pleased with itself; it was smug, it was cute it was clever. It would have been one of those designs that would have sat back and said to the audience, ‘Look at me while I do this.’ I didn’t want kids to feel like they were watching adults being smart.

I tried to think of something that had the same value for a child as it does for an adult. I landed on alphabet tiles because an alphabet tile with the letter A on it in my hand has exactly the same value as it does in the hand of a 6-year-old or a 96-year-old; it’s the beginning, middle or end of a word. It felt to me that if I could create a world that held together architecturally out of alphabet tiles, it would be currency that children would understand too and not feel intimidated by.

All the significant words for the story Matilda imagines and tells her librarian friend are in a giant word search in the set. It doesn’t matter whether anybody spots that, but if you do spot that it’s fun to find words at the interval or before the show starts. Those words are meaningful because they’re part of Matilda’s story that she’s imagined.

Trunchbull is terrifying, so I amplified all those choices in silhouette so that her scale is intimidating. The David and Goliath thing contributes to Matilda’s bravery when she stands up to her. It’s the same with Mr and Mrs Wormwood; everything that’s vulgar and grotesque and meaningless for a child is there with her parents. Those three costumes are trying to build a world around Matilda that is unbearable but recognisable to all of us. We’ve all had PE teachers who’ve overdone their power and control. We all know brash people who dress ridiculously thinking that they’re alluring or smart and sassy and they’re not at all. I’m trying to dig around with something that’s familiar for us all and then turn the volume up on it.

It’s absolute simplicity and honesty for Miss Honey. Nothing fancy, it’s just clothes for the day.

There’s an exoticism to Miss Phelps the Librarian. She has red sparkly shoes, she has feathers in her earrings, she has twinkles in her hair. Those things crop up in Matilda’s story. There’s a little trail of clues as to what Matilda might have picked up on in her life that contributes to the story she imagined.

It was amazing when Matilda won seven Olivier Awards. Matthew Warchus [the director] and I were in New York. We were watching the ceremony through a live stream. The show had a great ride that night and seemed to come away a popular multiple winner. Sometimes these things get a whole hatful of awards and there are grumblings. Generally speaking I think the show had good will behind it.

I still see the show every three weeks in London. When I’m in New York I always see it, that’s every six weeks or so. It’s not a chore. There’s been multiple casts and we all do our best to try and look after new people coming in as we did the original cast. The costumes are the costumes, but the body shapes inside those costumes are different so I and my associates need to make changes. We’re constantly trying to make sure that it’s still as fresh as it was when we all started.

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